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    Complete Guide to Intermodal Transportation

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    Intermodal transportation revolutionized the shipping industry. By combining multiple modes of transportation, such as by land and sea, the delivering and receiving of goods was made much more efficient.

    Moreover, it simplified the cargo handling process enabling businesses to reduce damage and loss costs. As such, it has become a popular way to convey freight from one destination to another. In fact, more than 25 million containers are shipped each year using intermodal transportation.

    Here is a brief summary of intermodal transportation’s origins.

    Intermodal transportation dates back to the 18th century in England, when it was primarily used on canals. It became even more widespread in the 19th century as railroads became the norm. By the beginning of the 20th century, covered containers were introduced for the transportation of products such as furniture. The United States adopted this practice as early as 1911.

    Now that you have a brief history of intermodal transportation, let’s dig into the details and a definition of the intermodal transportation system. In this article, we'll explain the intermodal definition as well as the key benefits of intermodal transportation.

    What is intermodal transportation and how does it work?

    The easiest way to define “intermodal” is anything involving two or more different modes. Inter means multiple, and modal is referring to modes.

    Here’s a simple intermodal transportation definition: a combination of two or more different transportation modes, such as a truck, rail, ship, or aircraft, used to move freight from the shipper to the final destination. Each carrier is responsible for a particular mode, so there are several freight bills from different carriers.. Intermodal transportation is also known as intermodal shipping.

    However, to better understand the intermodal meaning, let’s consider an example of intermodal transportation:

    Suppose a load of pineapples from the United States needs to get delivered to a grocery store in the U.K. The container of pineapples is loaded onto a ship containing hundreds of other products. Once they arrive in the U.K., a truck with an empty container arrives at the shipper to pick up the load of pineapples.

    Next, the freight is placed on a train and moved to its destination. Once it reaches its destination, the freight is removed from the train and delivered by truck to the consignee, where the content of the container is unloaded.  Once the container is empty and ready for another load, the process can start all over again.

    So, why might a company use intermodal transport? In short, it offers a host of advantages when it comes to cost, safety, sustainability, capacity, and more. More on these specific advantages later. First, let's define the difference between intermodal transportation versus trucking. 

    Intermodal transportation vs intermodal trucking

    Before understanding the specific advantages of intermodal transportation, it's important to clarify the difference between intermodal transportation and intermodal trucking, as the terms are often believed to be synonymous. 

    Whereas intermodal transportation involves moving freight via two or more modes of transportation (i.e. truck, rail, etc.), intermodal trucking refers to only a truck's involvement in the intermodal transport process.

    For example, an intermodal truck driver would only be responsible for the driving portion of the shipment process, a single mode of transport among many.

    What are the benefits of intermodal transportation and intermodal trucking?

    Some of the key advantages of intermodal transportation include:

    Cost reduction

    By utilizing intermodal containers, you can significantly reduce your transportation cost. This is because there is less cargo handling, leading to further damage loss costs, as well as more predictable shipping pricing.

    Simplified handling

    As noted above, intermodal transportation involves fewer people touching your cargo. As a result of less individual interference, the effort to move shipments is simplified.

    Environmental friendliness

    Environmental friendliness is another advantage of intermodal freight transportation. By implementing intermodal transportation, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. How so? Well, trains emit about a quarter of the carbon dioxide as compared to trucks.

    Efficiency & convenience

    Both of these characteristics are true of intermodal transportation as this method of shipping is more resourceful than other options and it has also proven to be more streamlined (and faster!) than typical over-the-road (OTR) deliveries. Convenience plays a factor, too, as containers are now equipped with track-and-trace technology allowing instant access to shipment status.


    Intermodal transportation is thought to be safer than OTR shipping due to the safety initiatives enforced by the railroads, especially when the transportation of hazardous materials is concerned.

    There are several types of fleet safety technology out there today that help intermodal shipping companies remain safe and in compliance with regulatory standards. Lytx’s fleet safety solutions help protect trucks that are part of the intermodal shipping lifecycle.

    Lytx can help fleets detect distracted driving, provide real time alerts to drivers in an effort to avoid collisions, and manage driver behavior. All of this allows fleet managers to have a greater peace of mind and trust drivers to make deliveries safely.

    Are there disadvantages of intermodal transportation?

    Although there are significant advantages of intermodal freight transportation, there are a few drawbacks. A few of the most prevalent disadvantages of intermodal transportation include:

    • Speed: Utilizing multiple modes of transport is slower than relying upon a single mode.
    • Reliability: Working with multiple service providers runs the risk of reliability issues among them which may result in increased costs and delays.
    • Environmental factors: Weather, traffic, and other factors may delay or add complications to intermodal transport strategy.

    Types of Intermodal Transportation

    There are two different types of intermodal transportation, defined as follows:

    1. Container-on-flatcar of COFC: the combination of a container (the metal box containing the goods) and flatcar (a flat base trailer without sides or ceiling used for railways and trucking)

    2. Trailer-on-flatcar or TOFC: the combination of an over the road trailer and container (as in a standard semi truck without the tractor) on top of a railway flatcar

    Intermodal Transportation Costs

    Intermodal shipping costs are similar to those of linehaul as their rates are equal except for the cost of fuel. Typically, there are three types of pricing used:

    1. Contract pricing: pricing is established at a rate promised by an intermodal service provider to move the shipper’s freight for a set lane (the typical route served by the carrier) over a set period of time, which is typically negotiated annually. This allows the shipper to lock in price and capacity over an entire year.

    2. Spot rate pricing: pricing is negotiated at the time a shipper needs to move its freight. Spot rates fluctuate throughout the year based on seasonal patterns, along with economic or severe weather impacts.

    3. Project pricing: pricing is negotiated for special projects that include shipments with an unconventional volume, allowing companies to take advantage of favorable prices over a shorter period of time.

    Is intermodal transportation an option for you?

    Now that we’ve answered your question: “what is intermodal transportation?” here are a few considerations to help you decide whether intermodal is a good choice for you.

    Intermodal transportation might be a good option if:

    • Your load units are less than 25 tons and consist of intermediate and finished goods
    • Your freight is moving more than 300 miles
    • You have cargo with intermediate values
    • Your cargo flow needs to be continuous and in similar quantities.

    Intermodal transportation best practices

    To make your intermodal shipping a hassle-free experience, follow these best practices:

    • Recognize the opportunity: Intermodal works best when you are sending multiple LTL shipments to the same destination several times a week. Plus, it’s a great way to reduce your company’s carbon footprint.
    • Package cautiously: Intermodal consignments do not usually leave the container during transit. Yet, the container itself experiences quite a bit of movement throughout the process. So use blocking and bracing techniques to keep cargo from moving within the container.
    • Use a reliable intermodal provider: Work with intermodal shipping experts to make the process less nerve-wracking from start to finish. Choose a provider that can negotiate rates with Class 1 railroads.

    Let Lytx Help

    Looking to learn more about the various methods of shipping and transportation? Lytx works with thousands of fleets across different industries and has a variety of resources covering all things fleet management. In addition, we offer technology for fleet management and compliance solutions to help your business improve safety, productivity, DOT compliance, and efficiency.

    We’ll ensure you increase the safety of your drivers while streamlining your process. Contact us today.